Lactose-Free….Or Not

Pepper Jack & Vegetable Chowder

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


You don’t have to be on a low-lactose diet to enjoy lactose-free milk.  A good friend introduced me to lactose-free milk in coffee because it tastes sweeter than regular milk. 


Recently my nutrition students made the same discovery during a sampling of lactose-free and regular milk.  The word I heard repeated was “sweet!” My goal was to illustrate the magic of enzymes via the experience of “taste”– how they unlock or cleave two-unit sugars such as lactose into one-unit sugars (in this case glucose and galactose).  This process, treating milk with the lactase enzyme, brings milk back to the table for people whose digestive system doesn’t make enough (or any) lactase.   That’s the only difference; lactose-free milk has all the protein, calcium, vitamins D, A, and other nutrients you expect from regular milk. 


While lactose-free milk is a great option, research shows that many people with lactose maldigestion can drink a cup of regular milk, about 12 grams of lactose, without problem (Reference 1, 2).  There’s also evidence that the friendly bacteria in the large intestine can be a back-up when there’s little or no lactase enzyme in the small intestine.  Starting with a small dose and consuming small, gradually increasing amounts of lactose over a period of time may allow these helpful bacteria learn to digest more and more lactose.  


People with lactose maldigestion do not need to give up all cheese, either.  Firm, aged cheeses have little lactose, including popular varieties such as Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella and Jack, with less than one/tenth of a gram of lactose per serving (Reference 3).  In the process of making cheese, much of the lactose is drained off when the curd is separated from the whey.  Additional lactose is broken down in the aging process.  A similar process takes place in yogurt where the bacteria that “culture” the yogurt break down lactose to tangy lactic acid.  Read the ingredient statement on yogurt packages to be sure no additional milk solids or whey have been added which would introduce more lactose (Reference 2, 3).


This Pepper Jack & Vegetable Chowder works beautifully with lactose-free or regular milk.  It’s so creamy, it’s hard to believe it is made with fat-free or lowfat milk.  A meal-in-one, each serving includes a serving of dairy, a variety of nutrient-packed vegetables and protein-rich white beans. 


Some people shy away from adding cheese to soup, fearing separation.  A little starch provides insurance. In this recipe flour serves as a thickening and protects the cheese proteins so they melt seamlessly into the soup.  Removing the soup from the heat and stirring the cheese into the hot soup before serving, helps insure a creamy result, too.


Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


Cooking time for the soup is short so prepare all the ingredients before you begin and place them within reach of the stove.  Professional chefs call this “mis en place,” French for “everything in place.”  Make this recipe set-up a habit to streamline all of your cooking.


Pepper Jack & Vegetable Chowder


For this recipe I use broccolini, a natural hybrid of broccoli and the Chinese vegetable, gai lan, however you can use regular broccoli if you like.    


1/3 all purpose flour

2 cups nonfat or reduced-fat lactose free or regular milk

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped red bell pepper

2 cups sodium-reduced chicken broth or vegetable broth

1 1/2 cups chopped broccolini*

1 can (15-ounce) white beans, drained

1 cup chopped carrot

2 cups baby spinach leaves, stems removed

4 ounces (1cup) finely shredded Pepper Jack cheese

4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme 

Salt and freshly ground white or black pepper, to taste


Place flour in medium bowl.  Slowly whisk in 1 cup of the milk and continue to whisk until smooth.  Set aside.  Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat.  Add onion and red bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, until onion is soft.  Add broth, broccolini, beans and carrot. Cover partially with lid, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Stir in spinach leaves and cook for about 30 seconds. Stir in flour mixture and remaining 1 cup milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in cheese and thyme.  Add salt and pepper, as needed.  Makes 4 servings.


*To prepare broccolini, peel stems and chop stems and florets into bite-size pieces.



1. Mayo Clinic Office Visit, Lactose Intolerance, an interview with Jean Fox, MD. Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource  April 2011


2. Gut Myths, Clearing up confusion in the GI tract. Nutrition Action Healthletter January/February 2013 pages 3 – 7.


3. Lactose Intolerance Facts


© 2013 Lorelle S Del Matto

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.

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